Mad Max: Escape From The Iron Cage

Imagine, if you will, the scene. The Enlightenment has defeated Religion, and its various champions meet to carve up the vanquished enemy’s territories. Philosophy takes the chair: ‘Right then, settle down everyone. Thank you. Now, let’s see...Religion used to offer ethics and laws. We’ll split that with jurisprudence. It also used to offer divination and blessings for the harvest. Economics, you can do that. It provided consolation, healing and exorcisms. You good with that, Psychology? The Arts, you can handle myth-making and ecstasy, OK? Excellent. So that just leaves community-building. Anyone? Sociology? I can count on you for that, yes? Good.’

Max Weber once suggested our society was haunted by the ghosts of dead religious beliefs. Sociology is more haunted than most. For the last century and a half of its existence, sociology has repeatedly told us that the rise of capitalism and decline of religion has left us lacking community and miserably alone. The great sociologists have found many different ways of describing the prison of modern isolation. Weber suggested we are trapped in ‘the iron cage’ of capitalist productivity; Emile Durkeim wrote that we have lost the capacity for ‘collective effervescence’ and are suffering from suicidal ‘anomie’; while Thorsten Veblen and Norbert Elias both insisted that we are imprisoned in an over-civilised concern for the approval of strangers. Our lives have become boxed-in and one-dimensional (Herbert Marcuse), our characters are corroded by the rat-race (Richard Sennett), we are cut off from nature and each other (Charles Taylor), we no longer dance together (Barbara Ehrenreich) or even go bowling together (Robert Putnam).

OK, we get it! We’re alone and depressed. So how do we get out of the iron cages we have constructed for ourselves. On that subject, sociology is oddly silent. Sociology, after all, is a social science, very prickly about its scientific status, and it’s not the job of science to lay out a grand moral vision. Early sociologists like Comte and Marx tried that, and it didn’t work. Science describes, it doesn’t prescribe. Thus sociology describes, very intelligently, the bars of our prison-cage.

From a certain perspective, sociology is itself part of the prison. Let me explain what I mean, with reference to that fascinating bundle of contradictions, Max Weber. What an interesting figure he is. Someone should make a film about him, starring Viggo Mortensen. Mad Max: Escape From The Iron Cage. His catchphrase could be: ‘It’s Weber time!’



Mad Max’s mother was a Calvinist religious enthusiast and his father was a worldly bureaucrat. They didn’t get on. Max spent his life working out the struggle between religious charisma and rational bureaucracy. His mother wanted Max to be religious too, but Max preferred the army and then academia. In 1897, he had an argument with his father, who then died, and this plunged Max into a suicidal depression - he seems to have had the same melancholic-enthusiast temperament as his mother. Except he didn’t come out of this emotional crisis religiously awakened. Instead, he threw himself into academic work and found a salvation of sorts there. For the rest of his career, he subjected religious phenomena to a pitiless rational analysis and classification, pounding it to death with his rubber-stamp, as if to revenge his dead bureaucrat father upon the irrational animist beliefs of his mother.

Weber’s great theme is the disenchantment of the modern world, and the historical shift from religious charisma to rational bureaucracy. A charismatic world-view - from the Greek charis, meaning gift - implies that God or the gods connect with humanity through the gifts of revelation and ecstasy. Yet over time, Weber suggested, the magic dust has seeped out of the world. In religion, the charisma of prophecy evolved into the rational religious ethic of priests. In politics, the charisma of tribal leaders evolved into the rational bureaucracy of civil servants. This might not sound much fun, indeed modernity may sound like an iron cage of rational technology, but we need to face up to this like adults, and accept that we live in an age without the consolation of gods, rather than taking flight into irrational mysticism like children.

Weber warned, in 1919, that young Germans were rejecting rationality and instead finding consolation in the ‘sterile excitation’ of revolutionary politics, and in ‘windbags...who intoxicate themselves with Romantic sensations’. This was dangerous. As Tina Turner put it, we don’t need another hero. You can see Max’ point - the politics of charismatic heroism cost millions of lives over the next thirty years. Yet Weber’s own more rational world-view has a potential flaw. Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out in After Virtue that rational bureaucracy can become so focused on the smooth running of the machine, it loses sight of the ultimate end or telos that it was designed to serve. Life without any sense of passion, conviction, inspiration or faith becomes meaningless, a machine going round and round without a driver or a map.

Academic ecstasy

This brings me to Weber’s thoughts on the role of the academic, which is something I’ve been pondering since coming back from Wales.

Weber discusses the role of the academic in a fantastic lecture he gave in 1919, called Science as a Vocation. He starts by telling the assembled students that he must disappoint them (modern life, for Weber, is one long disappointment, and maturity is accepting that). He is not going to unfurl some grand redemptive moral vision for them. That's not the academic’s job. The academic is not a seer, nor a revolutionary. Their proper role is not to impose any particular ethical world-view (or ‘weltanshauung’) on their students, and they only render themselves ridiculous when they try to become ‘arm-chair prophets’.

Instead, the academic specializes, and bends over their own small square of scholarship like a monk. They ruthlessly suppress their own passions and prejudices, and subject their chosen topic to dispassionate critical analysis. They may feel the occasional throb of religious ecstasy or political outrage, but such feelings have no place in the sober rational analysis of academia. The academic excises everything personal - their character, their emotions, their convictions, their life.

This is not to say the academic is soulless. Far from it. The academic may feel a ‘vocation’, a ‘passionate devotion’ to their craft, an ‘enthusiasm, ‘inspiration’ or ‘intuition’ which has ‘nothing to do with cold calculation’. They may even feel a ‘frenzy (in the sense of Plato’s ‘mania’), a sort of academic ecstasy which Weber compares to the Pentecost - he speaks of the academic feeling a ‘strange intoxication, ridiculed by every outsider’. So even that cold fish, the modern academic, is still haunted by the ghost of dead religious beliefs - in this case, the old Renaissance ideal of the ecstatic Platonic scholar.

But what God or demon does this academic ecstasy serve? Academics, Weber suggests, are tiny cogs in the great ‘process of intellectualization’, which helps to disenchant the world and make us realize there are ‘no mysterious incalculable forces’, therefore we can ‘master all things by calculation’. Academics, then, have a vocation for disenchantment, a passion for the dispassionate. But as the academic sits wearily through yet another departmental meeting, they may wonder, does this long ‘process of intellectualization’ really make life better?

Weber is uncertain. He’s dismissive of those who think that science brings more meaning into our lives. ‘Who - aside from certain big children from the natural sciences - still believes that the findings of astronomy, biology, physics or chemistry could teach us anything about the meaning of the world?’ He’s equally dismissive of those ‘big children in university chairs or editorial offices’ who think the progress of science makes us happier.

So what’s the point? It’s not for academics to say what the meaning of life is, what god or values we should serve. But Weber suggests academics can, at least, help to clarify what serving a particular god (or moral goal) would mean, and the sympathy or conflict between a particular world-view and empirical reality. An academic can be compared to a civil servant, who does not tell the Prince what values or ends to pursue, but explains the consequences and ramifications of any particular decision. The academic cannot, finally, tell us what god we should serve, and any choice involves a leap of faith.

From relationships to concepts

I have sympathy with this rather tortured position. I took a similar stance in Philosophy for Life, in which I explored various ethical world-views (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism etc) without forcing any particular one on the reader. I pursued the same tack when I taught the book as a course at Queen Mary. I also felt it was not for me to impose any particular ethical vision onto the students, other than the academic virtues of rigour, honesty and openness to criticism.

Yet what of my own beliefs and experiences, my own emotions and character, my own relationship to God (or the absence of God)? Are such concerns and experiences properly left out of academic work? Every academic faces the question of whether and to what extent to include their own feelings and experiences in their work, but a historian of emotion researching (and experiencing) ecstasy faces these questions in a particularly acute form!

C. Wright Mills, a great American sociologist who inspired many a Sixties radical, offers one solution. He tried to build a more engaged and ‘passionate’ model of academic work, where one works not just on one’s thesis, but on one’s character and society as well. He suggests academic research is ‘the most passionate endeavour of which a man is capable’ (tell that to your colleagues at the next departmental meeting).



Yet Wright Mills is also aware that passionate scholarship, or ‘felt knowledge’, has its pit-falls. In a review of James Agee’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (which is about the suffering of farmers during the Great Depression), he applauds the book for its passion, its indignation, its ‘sociological poetry’. But he also criticises Agee for getting too ‘in his own way’, ‘obscuring the scene and the actors’, for being ‘over-whelmed’, ‘indulgent’ and gushing. In other words, if you’re going to include yourself and your own feelings in your work, you have to be able to hold yourself and your emotions at a critical distance, and consider when to put yourself ‘in shot’, when to leave yourself out.

All of that is very well, and useful for me as a writer. But we are still faced with the wider social question: how do we escape from the iron cage of our isolation and anomie, and build stronger communities? I am not sure sociology can be much help here, because its tools of rational analysis and critical distance are, perhaps, themselves somewhat inimical to community. The way to love your neighbour or wife is not by holding them at a critical distance. Sociology studies the bare ribs of community, but tells us nothing of the heart which once beat within it. It tells us everything we need to know about the concepts of ecstasy, caritas, bonding and love, except what they feel like.

Weber praises Plato for inventing academia, for inventing the rational concept, and turning religion (man’s relationship with a living, breathing God) into theology (the articulation of abstract concepts). That achievement, he says, was when the long process of intellectualization and disenchantment began. All the -ologies that academics serve grew from Plato’s invention of theology, and are part of that same evolution from living relationships to abstract concepts. But was that not a terrible falling off? Can a concept love you? Can the concept of community keep you warm at night?


Did you make it this far? Well done!

Here's an article on baking and its benefits for mental health, which should be headlined Knead You Tonight, but isn't.

Here's a new study from the Maudsley of CBT for psychosis-like experiences in children. It suggests that 'over half of children in the general population report unusual or psychosis-like experiences'. Surely, then, they're Personally I had a toy Papa Smurf that spoke to me and there was absolutely nothing weird about that. Right, Papa Smurf? (He's nodding.) Also here's an episode of RadioLab about hearing voices.

Todd Kashdan and Robert Diesner-wotsit wrote an article about what happy people do differently for Psychology Today.

The Church of England is growing in London, as this video and report explores. Humanist communities are growing too - I'm playing the drums at Sunday Assembly this Sunday (then going to church after...It's all good!)

Here's a brilliant New York Times magazine article about Jason Everman, and his journey from Nirvana to Soundgarden to the US Special Forces to a Bachelors in philosophy.

I saw Bruce Springstreen perform last Sunday. It was amazing. Here's a former captain of England's cricket team on why he's seen the Boss perform more than 70 times. And here, on the excellent blog 'Rock and Theology', a theologist ponders how the Spirit is so strong in Bruce, despite him not being a Christian.

I had a big break in my journalism career last weekend, with this cover story in the Telegraph Weekend. Thanks to the Telegraph team for that.

Finally, let's end with some ecstasy for the weekend. Here's a track from Daft Punk's new album, called Giorgio by Moroder, which is a song and also an interview with synth-pioneer Giorgio Moroder. I love its combination of historical education and musical ecstasy - good combo!

See you next week,